Mexico’s converted island prison ready to receive tourists

MEXICO CITY (AP) — A small archipelago off the Pacific coast of Mexico that once housed an island penal colony is now ready to receive tourists.

Getting to Islas Marias, however, will be a challenge for even the heaviest tourist: a five-hour boat ride through often choppy waters.

But some, like Beatriz Maldonado, are already imagining the trip. When Maldonado was imprisoned between these “walls of water” – as a Mexican writer also confined there described it – she thought she would never see her mother again.

Maldonado only spent a year of his six-year sentence there for possession of drugs and weapons, but that was the most painful. “I lost my smile, my happiness,” she said. Now 55, a laundress and activist for other imprisoned women, she wants to come back to heal the wounds.

The Islas Marias penal colony was founded in 1905 on Mother María Island, the largest of the four islands and the only inhabited one more than 60 miles off the coast of Nayarit State. Frequently rocked by hurricanes scraping the Mexican coast, the government closed the prison in 2019.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had it transformed into an environmental education center, through which some 150 young people passed. Now the government wants to turn it into an ecotourism destination where visitors can watch seabirds and enjoy the beaches.

Last year, authorities said they would now allow camping or building hotels, as it is a protected reserve. It was unclear whether accommodation would be provided in the existing buildings, but without it attracting tourists could be difficult. It is not as easily accessible as Alcatraz, the infamous prison accessible from San Francisco. It could end up like the penal colony of the Panamanian island Coiba, closed in 2004, which is reclaimed by the jungle.

Maldonado planned to watch López Obrador’s visit to the island this weekend. “I would have liked to slip into his pocket,” she said.

The island is nothing like the dirt-floored prison dormitories with five bathrooms for 500 women that Maldonado remembers. “We lived in a chicken coop,” she said.

Today, a colorful mural of former South African leader Nelson Mandela, himself held for years in an island prison, welcomes visitors to renovated buildings, a whitewashed church and a cultural centre.

“What was a hell becomes a paradise,” said López Obrador.

There was a time when it was considered the “tomb of the Pacific”.

Writer José Revueltas, imprisoned there in the 1930s for his work in the Communist Party, said the prison was far more terrible than he could describe in his book “Walls of Water”. The worst cannot be described, he says, out of modesty or because we don’t know how to show that it is really true.

Island prison colonies were common around the world to make escapes nearly impossible or to rehabilitate through forced labor. Most were trying to be self-sufficient.

Prisoners on Mother María Island harvested salt and raised shrimp. They tried to earn a little money by brewing their own alcohol from fermented fruit, illegally selling exotic birds, or killing boa constrictors to make belts.

Years later, it was known as the “prison without walls” where some prisoners lived with their families in semi-freedom and in relatively good conditions.

That changed when President Felipe Calderon launched the war on drug cartels in 2006 and hundreds of new prisoners were sent there. In 2013, the prison population reached 8,000.

Maldonado served his time in this era. She said women, who were in the minority, were the most abused. Unlike the men, they were not allowed out of the fences even though they had skills and barely received enough food. Maldonado’s weight has dropped to around 45 pounds. “They didn’t pay attention to us when someone got sick,” she says. “My friend’s gallbladder ruptured.”

The extreme isolation was the hardest part, only broken on the 15th of every month when they were allowed a 10 minute phone call with a relative. Some who tried to flee drowned. On occasion, the Navy rescued others who got into improvised craft.

“The boats would come on Thursdays to bring us supplies and letters, and I saw my mother’s tears on the stained pages,” Maldonado said. “The worst part was thinking that I would never see her again.”

Rarely have some parents made visits which then involved 12 hours at sea.

Maldonado’s only colorful memory was of a tube of lipstick, the only personal item she took with her. When he was exhausted, she solemnly buried him because she felt like it had given her life.

A year after Maldonado was transferred to a Mexico City prison, six people died on the island in a riot sparked by a lack of food.

It was closed in 2019 due to high running costs, around $150 per day per inmate, which was much higher than on the mainland. Prison reform had also significantly reduced its prison population.

Devil’s Island in French Guiana, immortalized in the movie “Papillon”, closed in 1946. Alcatraz closed in 1963. Later, others in Chile, Costa Rica and Brazil were closed. The most brutal was Peru’s El Fronton in 1986, when the government used gunboats to quell a riot, killing more than 100 inmates.

Maldonado applauded the closure of Islas Marias and supports the idea of ​​inviting visitors. She said the proceeds should go to rehabilitation programs for inmates.

She has already written to former cellmates to ask if they would like to accompany her to the place she thought she would never see again.

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